A Novice’s Guide to HEMA: Novel Exercises for Historical European Martial Arts

I made this article since there is more to HEMA than reading treatises and book learning and one of those is to get your body into shape so you can apply your academic learning in a martial fashion. I won’t go into widely available basics but instead, I will go into a few suggestions that are a bit unusual with the primary goal to be to increase grip and arm strength while being a bit lazy or while doing other activities for the busy among us.

At the end I have some suggestions provided on Facebook and HEMA specific drills and exercises from youtube.

Starting off with one of my favorite tools is the spinner:

NSD Power AutoStart Spinner is the “Featured image” for this post because it is super cool and it is what I have. There are more expensive versions and cheaper ones than the one I linked to but this is the best bang for your buck. This is an exercising tool utilized heavily by golfers who want to build dense and dextrous forearm muscles just like we do. It is fun and easy to use. It is also used by people to help with carpal tunnel and tendonitis. There are many different brands and versions. Below is a “Powerball” model review from a hockey player but the basic concepts apply.

Kettlebells are can be very useful. Be careful getting started and don’t buy a cheap one unless you’re ready for a heavy metal ball go flying in a random direction should a handle break. Get one that is all one piece without any welding or anything that might hide any welding marks. If you can get started with an instructor at least one time before you do anything crazy or weird with this as you can injure yourself if your form stinks. I don’t have one myself but messed around with one back in high school.

The Gripmaster Hand Exerciser is useful for building individual finger, hand, and wrist strength and is another thing you can do maybe at work or while reading. There are many different variations and brands to choose from. Most have a set level of resistance but a few have resistance that is variable which is useful if you are using this to recover from a hand injury and building back up your strength. The video below is for guitar and bass players that I used many years ago when I played both. He has some suggestions on different exercises.

Agility Ladders are really useful for building up your lower legs and helping you become more cognizant of your footwork. Some allow you to move the bars to different lengths and hook up extra ladders or miscellaneous items to make a little obstacle course. This can help when you are trying to do solo drills and need to force yourself to think outside of the linear box common to kendo and modern olympic fencing. Taking advantage of traversing and sidesteps are an important part of your martial art toolset.

Resistance bars are great for recovery and are designed to help with tennis elbow which can plague a swordsman as well. The brand I linked to rates the resistance by color so be careful picking one that is appropriate for you. They also are very good at improving grip strength. There are a lot of different exercises out there that use these flexbars for different issues so be sure to look up different exercises or invent your own just don’t break your wrist.

Battle Ropes are a lot of fun and help out with building both your arms but also your core and is a very inexpensive way to get a full body workout. It will wear you out as muscles you rarely use flare up and make sure you’re paying attention. Start with a few basics and build your way up. I recommend starting at 1.5 inch and 40 feet if you’re not in fantastic shape which is what I have.

Balance Pads are very good for improving your balance and building your lower leg strength and tone. They will help your footwork and if you’re anything like me you probably need the help.

Gravity Fitness Stretch Strap is good for helping increase your flexibility and range of motion. If you’re going to be practicing lunges a lot this might be useful for you.

Medicine Balls allow for a whole series of great exercises that you can do while watching your favorite show lying on the couch. There are more movements you can do in a more serious fashion such as using a medicine ball like it was a sword or a basketball and making a motion as close to as you can to an oberhau and sending the ball to a wall for example if it is the type that bounces. This can build up your explosive “punch-like” force you need for martial arts. There are many types and weights to choose from. The link above goes to my medicine ball which is a middling size and weight and great value for the price. Most gyms these days have medicine balls so you can try them out and find one that works for you.

Resistance bands are great for practicing lunges and footwork as well as increasing leg and hip strength while you’re sitting at your desk if you have them on your feet.

Forearm Exerciser is great for building strength while binge-watching your favorite show.

Captains of Crush Grippers are expensive for grippers but are well made and will push your hand strength probably more than anything else if you use two or three models. I have a Trainer which is easy to close and a #1 which takes some work to close. Traditionally you’d have a third gripper which you can’t close that you work on occasionally. Give yourself breaks with this as you can push yourself too far very easily.

Suggestions from Facebook:

Shanee Nishry’s website showcases her exercise regime of about 30 minutes a day of Meÿer Square / Cutting Diagram Longsword drills. Check it out.

Susan Kirk mentioned that Indian Clubs can really help with both strengthening arms and shoulders as well as helping flexibility of wrists, elbows, and shoulders. It is great for both balancing out muscles on the left and right sides as well as improving coordination.

Indian Clubs at Purpleheart Armoury.

Incline Steel Club is on sale and it is nice for doing exercises when inside though I find I use my kettlebells far more.

Solo HEMA Drills and Exercises:

If this doesn’t get your newbie muscles burning quickly you’re either in great shape or doing it wrong!

This drill gives you something extra to do by forcing you to change directions while swinging your sword. Footwork is my greatest weakness I think so try this or variations of this out.

Blood and Iron is a great resource.

Matt has quite a few different solo drills on his site. I like this one and the ones he made when his right hand was injured.

This flow exercise has some direction changes and good practice for attacks from the Italian Longsword perspective.




When I got my buckler I instantly thought that it might be a great tool for low weight reps while watching videos on my PC. I do punches, moulinets (using the handle like it is a hilt), and windshield wiping wrist rotations. You easily do hundreds of reps while being a couch potato and if you already have the buckler it doesn’t cost anything extra. Below are some great exercises the guys at Sword Carolina made to use your buckler with.


My other essays:

A Novice’s Guide to HEMA: Websites to Buy Swords and Equipment

A Novice’s Guide to HEMA: Tournaments

A Novice’s Guide to HEMA: Historical European Martial Arts

A Novice’s Guide to HEMA: One Year Anniversary Update Post on Historical European Martial Arts

A Novice’s Guide to HEMA: My HEMA Loadout and Wishlist